Now a major motion picture starring Melissa McCarthy--Lee Israel's hilarious and shocking memoir of the astonishing caper she carried on for almost two years when she forged and sold more than three hundred letters by such literary notables as Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Noel Coward, and many others. Before turning to her life of crime--running a one-woman forgery business out of a phone booth in a Greenwich Village bar and even dodging the FBI--Lee Israel had a legitimate career as an author of biographies. Her first book on Tallulah Bankhead was a New York Times bestseller, and her second, on the late journalist and reporter Dorothy Kilgallen, made a splash in the headlines. But by 1990, almost broke and desperate to hang onto her Upper West Side studio, Lee made a bold and irreversible career change: inspired by a letter she'd received once from Katharine Hepburn, and armed with her considerable skills as a researcher and celebrity biographer, she began to forge letters in the voices of literary greats. Between 1990 and 1991, she wrote more than three hundred letters in the voices of, among others, Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, Edna Ferber, Lillian Hellman, and Noel Coward--and sold the forgeries to memorabilia and autograph dealers. "Lee Israel is deft, funny, and eminently entertaining...[in her] gentle parable about the modern culture of fame, about those who worship it, those who strive for it, and those who trade in its relics" (The Associated Press). Exquisitely written, with reproductions of her marvelous forgeries, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is "a slender, sordid, and pretty damned fabulous book about her misadventures" (The New York Times Book Review).
Lee Israel committed literary forgeries. She chose high-profile Modernist writers and falsified letters from her subjects by imitating their styles. She also altered documents from academic libraries by appending fabricated material to them. One might applaud her literary ventriloquism as an eccentric writing exercise; when she chose to sell her fabrications to dealers, however, she violated both moral and intellectual integrity.
There is certainly a social critique to launch against private collectors who wish to "invest" in cultural ephemera such as letters, and I feel limited sympathy for those who were duped by Lee Israel's schemes. However, these forgeries also have consequences for scholars trying to understand their subjects. Israel reports with glee that one of her false letters has been included in major edition of an author's collected letters. This is a terrible corruption, and Israel demonstrates no remorse for her actions.
What particularly irritates me about this text is that, in publishing a book about her forgeries, Lee Israel has been doubly rewarded for being a thief and a liar. Because of her actions, it is now even harder for legitimate scholars to do archival work. I am disgusted by Israel's shamelessness and disappointed that a major publisher would publicize her actions. I suppose the value in the text is that it serves as a warning. As for Lee Israel, well, she has to live with herself.
Lee was poor so she faked correspondence between famous people and other people. She got caught and now she's poor again so she writes a memoir. She tries to pretend to be reformed and Sorry, but she's not and you can tell by how gleefully she relishes her tale and how super clever and talented she still thinks she is. Ick.
Eventually Israel had to face the music, but I don't have the impression that her conscience bothered her very much. She seems to have fancied herself as a folk anti-heroine, like Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde.
This witty memoir, which can be read in about an hour, provides an interesting look at an uncommon crime.
Great writer, great subject. And in this current memoir, this great writer turns her lens on herself .. often gingerly outlining the edges of stories (suitors, cats, various apartments, friends who fade and friends who stay around) .. and a dicey, illicit, white collar crime spree Ms. Israel dreams up in the early 1970s. Her actions of forging and repenting, her sweet and self-effacing and intriguing descriptions of her own journey ... aggravate and challenge and entrance me.
I'd love to meet her. And I'm mad at her. Hell, I'm a researcher and I love these same characters whose work she forged. Not sure if i can "forgive" her actions exactly, but hey, who am I? I do love her mind. and my my my, she can write up a dream. Stritch is abso-fucking-lutely right about that.
But her fuck 'em attitude and snark kept me reading even as it repelled me. Looking forward to seeing the movie now.